Welcome to the latest in our series of short blogs to help you stay safe, sane and supported during the current crisis.
Through the events of recent months, from the gradual realisation that we are facing a pandemic, to the issuing of lockdown restrictions and now the easing of restrictions, we have all experienced changes to our work and home lives. In one of our early Quick Reads, we talked about the power of positive emotions for maintaining resilience and wellbeing through these tough times. Here we revisit these ideas with a discussion of how we can continue to prioritise positivity through ongoing change and challenge.
The importance of positive emotions
Positive emotions don’t grab our attention in the way that negative emotions do, so they often go under the radar. But the experience of emotions such as joy, contentment and pride have been found to play a hugely important role in our lives. For example, these experiences have been linked to stronger, more satisfying relationships, better physical health with improved immune functioning, and improved work performance.
When we experience positive emotions our sympathetic nervous system is calmed. We experience parasympathetic nervous system arousal and the release of endorphins and oxytocin which enhances our ability to be interested and curious, to think creatively and explore new possibilities.
Indeed, we actually experience more positive emotions than negative emotions, we just don’t notice them as much. And when we do, like catching bubbles, they are hard to hold onto.
Even so, the drive to experience positive emotions is common to us all, such that the wish to ‘just be happy’ is expressed by many. However, despite an expanding evidence base that tells us the benefits of happiness  for mental and physical health, the path to happiness is not straightforward.
The pursuit of happiness and its pitfalls
A number of research studies have found that attempts to maximise our experience of happiness in the moment can backfire, leading to negative emotions, feelings of disappointment and self-blame. Even the act of continuously monitoring happiness can, ironically, lead to us feeling worse.
With research suggesting we need to experience more positive emotions, some might argue that we have come to overvalue happiness, placing too much emphasis on it and seeing it as the key indicator of a successful, meaningful or worthwhile life. But of course, this would be to overlook that a meaningful life is made up of a wide range of experiences and emotions.
So, although we know that positive emotions and happiness are essential for our resilience and wellbeing, there is a danger that the more we try to be happy, the harder it is to be happy. Questions are also raised about how we might seek to achieve happiness without overvaluing it.
Evidence highlighting the tricky path to happiness has prompted researchers to explore both the conditions under which we are able to achieve happiness and those that cause our efforts to backfire.
In a recent study, researchers compared people who prioritise positivity with people who have a tendency to overvalue happiness.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, positivity is: “The practice of being or tendency to be positive or optimistic in attitude.” This defines positivity as an action rather than a character trait. Importantly, this definition encapsulates an understanding of positivity as a set of skills that can be learned and implemented.
The results of the study showed that people who prioritised positivity by making decisions to implement activities that boost positive emotions in their day to day lives experienced enhanced wellbeing, more positive emotions and greater life satisfaction. They also experienced higher levels of self-compassion, resilience, mindfulness and positive relationships.
In contrast, those people who tended to overvalue happiness were more likely to experience poorer wellbeing, negative emotions and less satisfaction with life.
How to prioritise positivity in challenging times
Studies such as these demonstrate that the pursuit and achievement of happiness may be considered a fine art. Positive emotions are notoriously hard to spot and easily slip away if we try to focus on them. And, as we have seen, sometimes our efforts to become happier can actually make us less so. This research suggests that viewing happiness as an ideal is less effective than actioning positivity.
Indeed, research is clear that by prioritising positivity through the adoption of a positive mindset we can choose activities that will improve our wellbeing and resilience. This will help us find ways to respond to challenging situations both calmly and optimistically.
So, what practical steps can we take to prioritise positivity?
Mindfulness is a skill that we can all learn that helps us step back from the hubbub of our daily lives, to observe our thoughts and allow them to come and go. Thinking of thoughts as leaves on a stream and allowing them to pass by, we can unhook from them, release ourselves from their effects and relocate ourselves in the present moment.
We can do this quite simply by just noticing the world around us, experiencing the sights, sounds and smells as stimuli for our senses, by taking a moment to focus on our breath or to notice how something tastes and feels as we touch it. Or we can take more time to engage in a longer mindfulness meditation.
Mindfulness opens our minds and creates the opportunity to step back from our negative thoughts and emotions, to engage in the world around us in novel ways and this brings with it positive emotions such as interest, pride and joy.
Notice three good things every day
Prioritising positivity by noticing three good things that occur every day will shift your spotlight of attention onto the positive things in your life. Research shows that study participants who did this for one week experienced higher rates of happiness and reduced symptoms of depression that lasted for up to 6 months.
When we encounter new challenges or down days, remembering the good things can help to remind us that it has not always been this way, that difficult times pass, and this helps us build hope and optimism.
Taking time to not only notice and feel gratitude but express it to others leads to a massive boost in positive emotions, such as love, appreciation, interest and hope. Check out this video which replicates a study in which participants were asked to do just that – to express gratitude to a person in their lives who they felt had helped, supported or inspired them in some way.
Connect with others
Connecting with others is essential for resilience, and this is partly due to the positive emotions we experience when we are with other people who we care about and who care about us. During the Covid-19 pandemic, many of us have been isolated from family and friends and this has been hugely detrimental to our mental health and wellbeing. Finding ways to re-connect, choosing to spend time, on the phone, online and now potentially in person (albeit socially distanced) will help you to prioritise positivity and experience more positive emotions.
Hold onto optimism
Optimism is a mindset that is associated with positivity. When we are able to view negative events as temporary, not personal to us or our fault, and specific to the current situation, we can reduce negativity and start to build positive emotions, such as hope. This is particularly important when we are facing challenges as it opens our mind to possibilities and provides us with a light at the end of the tunnel.
Remember, the pursuit of happiness is complex and if overvalued, it can elude us. Prioritising positivity by choosing activities that we know lead to positive emotions, holding onto optimism and connecting with others will lead to us being happier and healthier.
If you found this helpful and would like to find out more about coping in a crisis, check out some of the other blogs in this series. You might also like to join our Facebook group UR Resilient, where members are busy sharing creative and inspiring ideas for staying positive during this challenging time.
 We use happiness and positive emotions interchangeably here, although we acknowledge that term positive emotions incorporates many more different and varied emotions than just happiness